By Benjamin Sacks
In the January 2011 issue of Transactions of the Institute of British Geographers, Miles Ogborn (Queen Mary) recounted the resilience of oral histories in the eighteenth-century British Caribbean. Historians have long relied on culturally varied mediums – including art, maps, prints, stories and music – to better understand the past. Geographers, Ogborn asserted, tend to work with a narrower body of material: maps and surveys, letters and formal accounts of land use and taxation. The importance of oral histories lie in their intrinsic, human element; oral narratives attached the individual to the land, its people and its future to a degree a map simply could not match. Highlighting the work of Sandra Gustafson (Notre Dame) and Carolyn Eastman (Texas-Austin), Ogborn argued that the imperial experience ‘created worlds in which oratory and speechifying [sic] both mirrored and created new social orders’. Gustafson added that colonial interactions made ‘verbal forms [of communication] into primary markers of cultural difference’. Excessive primary information can be difficult to wade through, but the importance of individual, non-academic accounts cannot be underestimated.
Oral histories take on almost countless forms. A conversation, recorded in the minutes of a town meeting, or a synopsis recorded in a letter. Behind gravestones one finds eulogies, epitaphs, verse, memories, music and stories from friends and families. Nor should the progression of tales through multiple familial generations be ignored; alterations in the story can be indicative of topographical or human geographic (i.e. migratory) changes on the landscape. Oral histories provide a colour to geography that has rarely, as of yet, been seen. With the inclusion of spoken narratives, more recent three-dimensional, digital maps also gain a ‘fourth-dimension’ – an interactive, human filter.
Miles Ogborn, ‘The Power of Speech: Orality, Oaths and Evidence in the British Atlantic World, 1650-1800‘, Transactions of the Institute of British Geographers New Series 36 no. 1 (Jan., 2011): pp. 109-125.
Richard C. Powell, ‘Becoming a Geographical Scientist: Oral Histories of Arctic Fieldwork‘, Transactions of the Institute of British Geographers New Series 33 no. 4 (Oct., 2008): pp. 548-565.
Stephen Daniels, ‘Picturing Land and Life‘, Area 26 no. 2 (Jun., 1994): pp. 193-194.
Margaret Byron, ‘Using Audio: Visual Aids in Geography Research: Questions of Access and Responsibility‘, Area 25 no. 4 (Dec., 1993): pp. 379-385.